Thoughts on Conducting

by Judith Karzen

My first conducting lesson was very short.

Erwin Jospe, Director of Music at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, said to me, “Imagine the choir sitting on the piano—soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Now, do whatever you have to do to get them to do what you want.”

And then he sent me home.

I was fourteen years old and as they still do, Anshe Emet held two concurrent  services on the High Holy Days. He had decided that I would conduct the choir at one of these services. I have taken many conducting classes and lessons since that day, but nothing has been as helpful or as instructive to me as his words so long ago.

Many books and treatises have been written on the subject. There are many rules regarding the beating of time, the use of the right and left hand, subdividing the beat, etc. But they all seem to leave out the one most important thing—How do you convey to the singers the musical sound that you hear inside your head?

Conducting is not time beating. That is a tool to use as a cue to the performers, but it does not, in itself, create music. MUSIC is the transmission of emotions through sounds which touch people in different ways, creating moods and expressing feelings.

Margaret Hillis, the renowned Director and founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, would tell her classes, “Each of you, when you stand in front of this chorus, will create a distinct and different sound.” The chorus is the same, the piece they are singing is the same, but you, the individual conductor are not the same. Each of us has a unique interpretation and a unique voice.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Conductor, Ricardo Muti, quoted the revered conductor Arturo Toscanini in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, “Any donkey can conduct, but to make music is difficult.”  Muti went on with his own thoughts. “We are a visual society and people think conducting is nothing but waving your arms. The truth is, you have more control with fewer gestures.”

I could go on and on with quotes and insights and suggestions. But what I will try to do in this short space is convey to you some of the things that have worked for me in my conducting career.


Just as a pianist or a violinist plays an instrument, as a conductor, the choir is your instrument. You shape the music utilizing the idiosyncratic sounds and nuances of this “vehicle.” But how does one transform a group, however large or small, of individual singers into a unified whole? Some conductors use fear, others use intellectual approaches. If we are afraid, we will not sing well. If we are angry, we will not sing well. Singing is an emotional expression. One has to be totally relaxed emotionally to be able to summon the very best within oneself as a singer.

To begin with, I see the choir as human beings with hearts and souls and intelligence. It is my job, as a conductor, to bring those elements together and to meld them into a single unit which thinks and feels and TRUSTS the director as well as each other. I often compare singing in a group to cheering at a sports event. A large group of people are feeling and expressing the same emotions at the same time. What a “high” one feels! (It’s better than drugs, I tell the teens, because it is something we are all sharing together. And we can repeat it over and over and it becomes more and more “fun!”) It is thrilling to share the air molecules in this way!

A conductor must present oneself with dignity, strength, purpose, belief in what we are doing, complete mastery of the material to be dealt with, excitement, a good dose of old fashioned humanity, and fun. I cannot be aloof from my singers. Without them and their good will, I cannot produce the sounds I wish to hear. We all have to enjoy the process.We are all in this together. I need them and they need me. We must develop mutual trust. Together, we must become one.


So, now that we have begun to establish a camaraderie, it is time to tackle a piece of music. I think it is important for the singers to have some idea of what they will be singing. I introduce the piece by speaking about it, giving some background, telling anecdotes about the composer, translating the words, because most of what we sing is in Hebrew or Yiddish. Then I play through it and encourage them to read or sing   along to get the feel of it. This is done in the tempo, the style, and with the emotional tenor of the finished product.

Next, we tackle the words. Diction is so, so important! From Margaret Hillis, who studied under Robert Shaw, I became aware of diction. From Robert Harris of Northwestern University, I became aware of inner rhythmic energy. We go through the piece, line by line, annotating the proper pronunciation and having them repeat each line after me. If the rhythmic emphasis is not there, we do it again. If the ends of a phrase do not properly emphasize the consonants, we do it again. If a certain onomatopoetic treatment occurs, I draw their attention to it so that they know what they are singing. If a certain configuration of words is difficult, we break it down, repeat it, make a rhythmic game out of it, until it feels comfortable.

 My favorite phrase comes from Miriam’s Song at the Sea, Ashira Ladonai, in the setting by Erwin Jospe:

“Sus v’rokvo rama vayam”

(Horse and rider were thrown into the sea”)

This line truly is a mouthful! Anyone who has performed this setting with me has been drilled in this sentence ad nauseum, but with full rhythmic dynamism and at all speeds, and I could wake any one of them from a sound sleep, put this phrase in front of them, and they would spit it back automatically…..and with perfect diction. They’ll never forget it!

Next, we finally get to the music. If the piece is mostly homophonic, we can begin to sing in four parts. If it is more polyphonic in nature, we take the sections separately. Each voice part must be sung with the proper diction, phrasing, dynamics, and feeling from the beginning. It makes no sense to just learn the notes and then try to put all the other “stuff” back in. Do it correctly from the beginning. Then, when each voice part is the way you want it, when you put them all together, the piece will come alive from the inside out. A crescendo in the tenor part will emphasize a harmonic change. A suspension in the alto part will facilitate a cadence.


Here is where the intangible part comes in. Since I began my career conducting from the piano or the organ, it was necessary to be able to convey my conception of a piece and my instructions to the choir with only one, or sometimes, no hands. Huh? How can you do that? (Actually, for the conductor, this is the most “fun” part of the entire process.) And, I still believe today, that this was the most important lesson I learned from Jospe on that hot summer day so many years ago.

“Do whatever you have to do to get them to do what you want.”

Your whole body has to reflect the mood, the feeling, the emotion you are trying to achieve. If you are singing a Yhiyu L’ratson after the meditation, you are not going to bounce up and down with the rhythm of the phrase. You are going to reflect tranquility, fluidity, extreme legatissimo in posture and in the way that you move. In an energetic Halleluyah, your body will reflect the bouncing exuberance of the inner rhythm of the piece.


There are many styles of music and just as many approaches to choral or vocal sound. Singers must learn to listen to each other. They must constantly be aware that they are a part of a group. This is no place for soloistic egotism.  Each voice is important. One “off” pitch or one “off” quality can ruin a section or the entire ensemble. One sluggish or improper pronunciation can destroy the effect of the whole group. The conductor must listen carefully, but so must everyone else. If the vocal quality or pitch is incorrect, we must illustrate for the group what is wrong and create an example of how it should sound. Should we have no vibrato—a “white tone”—or allow the natural vibrati of the individual voices to blend? Should we use a head voice in this phrase?  Should we begin with a rich, full tone and then decrescendo to head voice in the coda?

In a truly cohesive ensemble, a fortissimo will be as thrilling for the singers as well as the listeners.

And how many times, when we have created a pianissimo ending, have the very walls been crying out in silence as I asked the singers, “Do you hear what has happened in this room?!”  What power we hold to move the audience!


When we put all of this together, I come up with the following:

 Conducting is the imposing of one’s will upon a homogeneous group (our instrument) in order to create the sounds one hears inside one’s head. “Anything goes” as one strives to achieve this goal. Some conductors’ styles are more choreographed during performances than others. (Think Leonard Bernstein vs. Fritz Reiner).

But if the conductor is well prepared, and all have done their work during the rehearsal period, very few reminders are necessary during the actual performance. Conductor and singers are on the same wave length and the music just pours out!

Judith H. Karzen has devoted her professional career to Jewish music—  performing, coaching singers, training choirs, lecturing, writing, and teaching.

She has dedicated her life to the preservation of Jewish music and to its transmission to the next generation.

She served as Director of Music at Temple Beth Israel in Chicago from 1962-1997, as the Artistic Director/Conductor of the Halevi Choral Society from 1984-2004, and as the national President of the Guild of Temple Musicians from 1975-1985, during which time she founded and edited the GTM Newsletter. She has become recognized as a leading authority on Jewish music as well as a consummate performer, conductor, and lecturer. She is listed in  Who’s Who in  American” and in “Who’s Who in Music”.

She was selected as Jewish Chicagoan of the Year in 1996 by the Chicago Jewish News and was awarded a Fellowship Grant from the Illinois Arts Council for 1999.  In 2000 she was invited to Europe by the Milken Foundation to work with the Vienna Choir Boys, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and Berlin’s Ernst Senff Chorus in preparation for archival recordings of Jewish music. In 2008 she was honored by B’nai Brith as a Woman of Valour.

In 2012, she came out of retirement to be the pianist for the newly issued CD, FAVORITES OF HAZZAN WILHELM SILBER.

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